MILWAUKEE—If you're a football fan, you've seen the wedge-shaped polyurethane foam cheesehead hats worn by legions of devoted (and fashionably adventurous) Green Bay Packers fans.
After nearly 30 years in the business, the company behind the hats, processor Foamation Enterprises L.L.C., wants to do some serious branching out.
The small Wisconsin manufacturer is embarking on a $2 million expansion, setting up a new factory in Milwaukee to boost its business in custom foam manufacturing.
Today most of Foamation's sales are tied to the unique headgear and related merchandise. But founder and owner Ralph Bruno wants to diversify.
“Eighty percent of what we do is cheesehead-related and 20 percent is other work,” he said. “Our intention is to kind of flip those numbers.
“The manufacturing at Foamation will have the ability to spread its wings and fly into new areas,” he said.
The company secured $1.4 million in loans in early April, including $411,000 from the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp.
It plans to move from a small facility in St. Francis, Wis., outside Milwaukee, to a 15,000-square-foot location in the city, with five times as much manufacturing space. It will spend another $500,000 to $750,000 on equipment, he said.
He said the company wants to tap its expertise in foam processing and build on product development work that now comes in the door piece by piece, on the coattails of the cheesehead.
“We are inventing things all the time,” he said. “It's hard to pin a category on what we do and what we want to do.”
The company has worked on products that embed near-field communication devices in the foam, or on sports gear like a foam water bottle insulator that doubles as a muscle massager for serious athletes. It developed that working for a company started by a former Olympic speedskater, he said.
Foamation expanded the cheesehead brand over time into products like blankets and bow ties, and has a small retail store and an active website, cheesehead.com, (where it asks for “comments, insults, suggestions”).
Foamation is not large. It has 13 full-time and two part-time employees, and plans to add eight full-time and eight part-time staff in the new factory, Bruno said.
But it gets a lot of free media beyond its size: Bruno has been interviewed in the Huffington Post and the company has been profiled during NFL television coverage.
Sales go up if the Packers are winning, and it doesn't hurt that the hat has found its way into pop culture in the Upper Midwest, with the parody hip-hop group “Cheeseheads with Attitude,” and in the more solemn “Wedge of Allegiance.”
“The cheesehead brand really gets a lot of attention,” Bruno said.
But the headgear comes from humble beginnings. A 20-something Bruno carved the first one in 1987 from a sofa cushion and wore it to a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. It was instantly well received, and Bruno said he spent a few years building the business part-time before quitting his day job.
Wisconsin is the largest cheese producing state, and at the time “cheesehead” was a putdown. Bruno believes that's what makes the hat so popular.
“The cheesehead took a slander against us Wisconsinites and turned it into a badge of honor,” he told the Huffington Post in 2011.
Now, he said he's focused on transitioning the company to the future. As he gets older he wonders what the business will look like in 30 years. He thinks about the employees and having a good base as a company.
While the cheesehead began as a lark, it's evolved into a serious business.
The company staunchly defends itself in intellectual property lawsuits, and Bruno can talk at length about how the wedge is the color of cheddar but has holes somewhat like Swiss cheese, so it's not like any particular kind of cheese, it's a unique creation.
“It's millions of dollars serious,” he said.
He also believes its manufacturing expertise has untapped value. Pouring polyurethane into foam molds and having it expand 10-fold may look simple, but Bruno said it can be deceptively complicated. It's that experience he wants to tap into to try to secure its future.
“There are foam gods that we pay reverence to every day,” Bruno said.